Economic Update – April 2021
by Infocus Author
Within this month’s update, we share with you a snapshot of economic occurrences both nationally and from around the globe.
– US COVID-19 infection rate starts to climb again despite vaccine rollout
– US and global economic growth strong – but not yet inflationary
– Bond yields rise strongly as inflation expectations increase in response to economic recovery and maintenance of stimulatory policy settings
We hope you find this month’s Economic Update as informative as always. If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any aspect of this report, please contact our team.
The Big Picture
The race against COVID-19 continues but at very different speeds around the globe. Some countries have not yet started a vaccination programme and we have only just begun ours. We sadly found out at the end of March we hadn’t yet vaccinated all of the front-line health workers in Brisbane! The NSW and federal governments are in a stoush about vaccine shortages and misinformation.
The UK is well ahead of the US in terms of the proportion of their populations having been vaccinated but the US has delivered 150 million shots ‘into arms’.
While it might seem like a priority to get a whole nation’s population vaccinated first, the virus can only be eradicated when a sizeable proportion of the whole world’s nearly 8 billion people are immune through vaccination or having contracted the virus. And the longer some countries stay behind the vaccination curve, the greater is the chance of new, more virulent strains of the COVID-19 virus developing.
It is also important to note that those who have been vaccinated are not necessarily immune. The clinical trials data provide clear evidence that vaccinated people can contract the virus. Indeed, the efficacy rate of a vaccine is calculated from the relative infection rates of those who have been vaccinated versus those who haven’t (the placebo or control group).
Only 100% efficacy implies total immunity from vaccination. The best vaccine so far is about 95% effective. It is widely thought that 60% is the minimum rate to make a vaccine worthwhile.
One of the major public health problems now emerging is that some countries are practicing ‘vaccination nationalism’. They are unwilling to share the doses they have control over.
The European Union (EU) is pressuring member states not to supply orders from its production to nations outside the EU while there remains a backlog of unfulfilled orders within the EU. Australia’s orders for the vaccine have been hindered at least by France and Italy. We are well behind our objectives stated by the government a few months ago.
The US, from President Biden’s speeches, has on order many more doses than it needs this year. Bloomberg reported that the US had secured twice the number of doses needed to vaccinate everyone. Given many in the US do not want to be vaccinated, it is logical that some of the US’ stockholding would be better directed elsewhere. The US just offered 1.5 million doses to Canada ‘on loan’ even though it has secured so much more than it needs in the immediate future.
The third wave of US infections peaked after its holiday season at around 250,000 new cases per day on a 7-day moving average. That infection rate almost got down to 50,000 per day in early March but it has started to climb steadily to around 65,000 per day in spite of the success of its vaccination programme.
There have been other issues hampering the fight against the virus – specifically regarding the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine. This vaccine is especially important as it is the planned solution for most of the world including Australia. AZ is reportedly new to the vaccine business and seems to have over-promised. Deliveries are reportedly well behind schedule.
Three unrelated problems have emerged with the AZ variant. The first was that, due to a bungle over administering the correct dosages, it emerged that it might not be sufficiently efficacious for the over 65s – the people who are at most risk.
A significant number of countries in the EU and beyond then stopped vaccinating that age group with the AZ vaccine – and some suspended the vaccine altogether. It later appeared that the evidence wasn’t sufficiently strong to warrant suspension of its use consequently, many countries started reversing their earlier decisions.
The second issue related to blood clots. Some people – but not that many – suffer from blood clots whether or not they have been vaccinated with any relevant drug. In the trials, some thought too many people in the AZ vaccinated group – as opposed to the placebo or control group – contracted blood clots.
The numbers of people so affected in each group are so small that it was hard to form a compelling statistical relationship. The jury is now swinging back to the fact that AZ does not cause blood clotting but, perhaps, those with certain pre-existing conditions might avoid AZ.
Nevertheless, effective from the end of March both Germany and Canada have suspended vaccinations for the under 60 and 55 age groups, respectively. There seems to be no consensus!
The third issue with AZ is the manner in which the results of the trials have been disseminated. It seems to have been a case of distributing information by press release rather than by the traditional scientific reports.
AZ had produced a number of sets of seemingly conflicting data. Then, in late March, AZ announced again by press release that it had concluded its large US trials and the vaccine was 79% efficacious – quite a good number and better than in some other earlier trials. Then, two days later at 12:20 am (Washington DC time) a US regulator called AZ to task over the nature of the data they were using!
While AZ came back and lowered its efficacy rating from 79% to 76%, we expect there is more to come on this matter.
We reasonably surmise from all of these events that AZ is as safe to take as any other vaccine but there isn’t great clarity over its efficacy. It certainly seems to be a lot better than nothing but, perhaps, we should continue to practice social distancing etc after having been vaccinated with AZ – or, until we know better.
The major prevailing economic fear at the moment is that inflation will return and require central banks to start hiking interest rates sooner than previously expected. It is true, much of the economic data has exceeded expectations but catch-up is different from reaching new highs.
The US Federal Reserve (Fed) is now expecting 6.5% US growth in 2021. Since US GDP ended 2020 behind its 2019 level, 6.5% in 2021 will only have the US, by the end of 2021, where it would have been after two years of ‘normal’ growth in 2020 and 2021.
There are also 9.5 million unemployed in the US who haven’t yet got the jobs back that they lost in the shut-downs. Inflation woes look a very long way off to us. But it is encouraging to see strong economic progress.
China released an encouraging plan for ‘quality’ growth over the next five years at a rate above 6% per annum. While there are many significant geopolitical concerns about China, the strength of its economy is not one of them.
Australia is also experiencing strong growth in GDP and in house prices – but GDP is still largely playing catch up. The house-price conundrum is causing many to scratch their heads. Latest data also put US house price growth over the last 12 months at 11.2% which is the strongest in 15 years.
Our overall assessment is that the developed world is starting to return to normal but we see occasional resurgences of infections and shut downs here and elsewhere for at least the rest of 2021. And markets seem set to follow recent momentum along with all of the ample stimulus from both central banks and governments.
The ASX 200 had another strong positive month – making it six in a row – but the index stands well short of its February 2020 peak.
We are noting that returns in different sectors have been behaving quite differently in recent months. Investors are presumably trying to work out how best to set their portfolio ‘styles’ for a post-pandemic world or, indeed, see their way through any consequent volatility.
The S&P 500 reached fresh all-time highs again in March. This index had a very strong month along with the London FTSE and the German DAX. China and emerging markets did not fare well.
The US Federal Reserve (Fed) has clearly stated that it will support quantitative easing (QE) or bond purchases for some time to come and it will give clear warning long before it plans to start to ‘taper’ the programme. That, and the trillions of dollars of fiscal stimulus being pumped into the US economy should ensure the momentum in US equities continues.
Our current estimate for the yield on the S&P 500 is about 1.6% (a little lower than historic averages) which is about the same as the 10-yr US Treasury yield. Given the prospect for capital gains in equities, we see the yield comparison still very much favouring equities for this year and possibly a lot longer.